The Ira Glass Retraction: Half full or half empty?

If it is the mission of journalism to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, then Ira Glass found a perfect public radio story in the theatrical testimony of Mike Daisey.

Here’s what Glass, host of “This American Life,” said on the air after he first witnessed Daisey’s staged monologue about the alleged exploitation of Chinese workers by Apple:

“A couple weeks ago, I saw this one-man show where this guy did something onstage I thought was really kind of amazing. He took this fact that we all already know, this fact that our stuff is made overseas in maybe not the greatest working conditions, and he made the audience actually feel something about that fact. Which is really quite a trick. You really have to know how to tell a story to be able to pull something like that off.

“And I bring this up because today we are excerpting that story here on the radio show. The guy’s name is Mike Daisey, and he makes his living doing monologues on stage. He’s been doing that for years, though you’re going to hear, in this story, that he turns himself into an amateur reporter during the course of the story, using some investigative techniques, once he gets going, I think, very few reporters would ever try, and finding lots of stuff I hadn’t heard or seen anywhere else. Not like this. …”

As it turned out, there was a reason Glass hadn’t seen it: The stuff — as old time reporters used to describe the fictionalized reporting that came out of police raids on opium dens — was “piped.”

Some basic fact checking by a skeptical reporter on Marketplace led to the exposure of key lies, exaggerations, fabrications (call them what you will). No guards with guns, no 12-year-old girls working 60-hour weeks, no maimed worker rubbing his stump across the magic surface of an iPad. Glass thought he found Upton Sinclair. He wound up with James Frey.

As I listened to Glass’s interrogation of Daisey on the episode retracting his report, I could not help but recall Oprah Winfrey’s pillory of Frey, author of “A Million Little Pieces.” I was a guest on Winfrey’s show that day. Question after question led to a Frey admission that some aspect of his so-called memoir – first peddled as a novel – was not factual, but was either an exaggeration or fabrication.

A great cultural divide exists in the world of writing between those who believe that the standards of memoir should be journalistic, that no scene, memory, or dialogue can be fictionalized. Others, many others, in fact, believe that memoir should be understood as some hybrid between fact and fiction, a process in which inexact memories are hammered into a believable, compelling narrative.

Oprah’s audience assumed Frey’s book was truthful or factual (choose your word). They stood and cheered when he walked across the stage. As lie after lie was revealed, they hissed and booed, not just in solidarity with Oprah, but in collective outrage that some contract was broken between author and audience.

There came a point in the “This American Life” retraction episode when Glass asked Daisey about whether his theatrical work should now include some kind of disclaimer at the front end, a transparent admission that elements of his monologue stray from the truth or the facts (pick your language).

Daisey makes a case that theater is not journalism and apologizes for letting his dramatic work be aired on a show that claims to adhere to news telling standards. For those who follow the memoir debates, Daisey goes on to make a familiar claim: that a theatrical work aspires not to actualities but to a higher truth. It seems to dramatize all aspects of an experience to make an audience pay attention, to make them care.

I agree with Daisey on that point. I never sit in a theater and believe that what I am about to experience is “factual,” in any sense of the world. In the theater, key moments are not factualized, but fictionalized. Few film documentaries follow the discipline of practical truth telling that I expect from professional investigative journalism. When I see a photo gallery – say of American soldiers pissing on a corpse – my second instinct, after shock, is to ask, “I wonder if that was staged,” or “Could this be an example of photo manipulation?”

Isn’t it interesting how we use the word “staged” to mean “not real.”

This learned skepticism forces me to the conclusion that Ira Glass’s framing of his retraction of Daisey’s story is designed, in the end, to sidestep his greatest failing. My evidence comes from Glass’s argument with Daisey that when someone gets up on the stage and says “this happened to me” or “I saw this,” that common sense argues that the testimony is true or factual. In other words, “I believed you because you acted as if it were true.”

In fact, the staged monologue, the memoir recollection, the autobiographical anecdote are among the lying-est venues on the face of the cultural earth. How many examples do we need in journalism and literature to remind us that if a story is too good to be true, it probably is, or that, even if I trust the author, I have as an editor, publisher, or producer the duty to verify.

Trust, but verify.

The more significant the potential impact of a story, the greater the duty of a gatekeeper to prosecute it, to ask over and over, “How do we know this?” “Who told you that?” “How many sources do you have for that?”  “What did you see with you own eyes?” “Do you have any documentary evidence to substantiate that claim?”

There is investigative journalism, but no such thing as investigative theater. And Ira Glass knows it. He knows it from the perspective of a veteran producer, who understands how to magnify the dramatic tension in a radio narrative. Why, then, did Glass choose not to prosecute the story until it was exposed as a fake by another public radio reporter? Why did he brush aside earlier warnings and inconsistencies?

I have a theory and nothing more. Here it is: Ira Glass wanted the story to be true. He let down his guard – and his audience, who also wanted the story to be true. They wanted it to be true primarily for good reasons, because its exposure might lead to reforms and saved lives. That purpose would link them to Daisey’s chain of intent. But they also wanted it to be true because a badly bruised Apple fits neatly into a master narrative about corporate greed in America, a story that will continue to play itself out in presidential politics.

Rather than being what is pretty good about America  – ingenuity, creation of wealth, service to middle class customers — Apple’s piece of the pie can be seen anew, through Daisey’s story, as just another company, led by just another robber baron, building profit and corporate share on the bodies of the poor. This is the perpetual fantasy of the left.  I always imagined that Ira Glass was too smart to become its victim.

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  • Anonymous

    I disagree with this blog on this ground: that Ira and his team did try to fact check the story, and Daisey told them it was true and blocked key means of proving otherwise. Agreed the show shouldn’t have aired and that’s This American Life’s fault – but Daisey is as much to blame as Ira.

  • Anonymous

    I did listen to the entire retraction. And more than once, more than twice, Ira owned up to the staff’s failure. Not just to follow up blocked leades, but to kill the story when critical facts couldn’t be checked. He was candid and claimed full responsibility as he challenged Daisey to do the same. I consider it a model of crisis response — immediate and full disclosure.

  • Ste

    Great post.  Great conclusion.  Just needed ONE parallel to barack obama’s “dreams from my father.”

  • Greg Jenkins

    Thank you for your responses, RPC. I appreciate the additional rationale. This has been a interesting study in how the myriad of inputs we receive each day–media, entertainment, advertising, gossip, etc.–muddle together to form our opinions. It also speaks to which of those opinions we choose to embrace and promote. It’s mostly the ones that make an emotional connection, whether we choose to believe the truth or a lie. Politicians and their minions know this too well, and I’m just weary of them flogging us with factless, truthless, emotional nonsense.

  • Anonymous

    This is a great column of the situation, and I think your analysis of Glass and his motives in the last two paragraphs is accurate. Glass should have spent more time in the “Retraction” episode outlining TAL’s editorial failings and how they were going to make sure it wouldn’t happen again.

    I do disagree with Clark about giving a theatrical venue a pass on telling the full truth. I wouldn’t expect truth from a dramatic production, but a monologue about a real visit to a real place with real people told with supposed real details shouldn’t be given creative leeway on those details. Without a disclaimer, the truth of the story is important in the style which Daisey presents his show.

  • Kathleen Dutro Adams

    I enjoyed this column a lot, Peter. Among its other benefits is that it encouraged me to find and read the transcript from the retraction program, which I just did, and it was *fascinating*. I think TAL did a great job of explaining what happened and where it made mistakes and I very much admire their retraction…but it *definitely* made mistakes – avoidable mistakes – with the original program, which Ira Glass readily concedes. When Daisey couldn’t provide anything to back up what he claimed he’d personally seen, that should have set off alarm bells. And you know…I think it did set off those alarms. It’s just that they were tiny little alarm bells, and they were lost in the noise of what TAL believed to be and wanted to be a Big Story. TAL was taken in by con, really. It’s a shame, but I think TAL learned from it, and I think maybe I have, too.

  • Roy Peter Clark

    Thanks you for these good comments.  I will answer and respond to them here:

    1. Yes, I listened to most of the retraction show in my car. Went home and listened to the whole thing on my iPad.  Then read transcripts.  Clearly, whatever fact-checking was done was insufficient to expose an obvious fabricator.  Why?  I stick to the conclusion that Glass, moved by Daisey’s work, wanted the story to be true, and let his guard down.

    2. My political commentary at the end should have been expanded to include this:  that public radio’s recent scandals and firings have led to exaggerated claims of a liberal bias at places such as NPR.  I would argue that by creating a space on the show for Michael Daisey’s exaggerations, Ira Glass added to the vulnerability of public radio on this account.  As for my liberal fantasies crack, Daisey’s back on stage defending his Apple story and getting standing ovations for his propaganda. 

  • Greg Jenkins

    I agree with Ellen Burns about the political dig. Such pejorative phrasing is woefully tiresome in this hyperpoliticized climate.

    I would also like to know if what Christopher Onken says is true. Did you listen to all of the retraction show? If not, that strikes me as a breach of your readers’ trust on your part. Pretty strong opinions for someone without all of the information.

    If I am wrong, I apologize. If you wrote this without listening to the show or reading the transcript–not cool.

    (Full disclosure: I am politically unaffiliated but pretty lefty. I own a number of Apple products. I read the transcript of the retraction show but did not listen to that show or the original Daisey show. I believe that Daisey treated This American Life like chumps.)

  • asian date online

    Lol. It’s all very cool

  • Anonymous

    Mike Daisy has been trading for years on people believing the stories he tells are true. He counts on it and understands quite well  that his stories have emotional appeal because he leads people to believe that they are true.  That’s why he was so cagey with Ira Glass: he knew his little gig was up.  What gets me is his refusal to own his bullshit about any of this.  Ira Glass admitted his error in judgement and did an admirable job of restoring some degree of accuracy and accountability to the story.  Glass was obviously disturbed by the event but Daisy kept maintaining that fooling people in a theater is different than lying to them on PBS.  I don’t buy it. I have seen Mike Daisy and I know that his appeal on stage is in large part because people believe they are getting the specific facts not just some greater truth.  And Daisy knows damn well what he’s doing — misleading people so he can have a stronger emotional appeal. All this of course is being done for a greater good, as Mike would have us believe.   

  • Anonymous

    This summed up my feelings on the whole brouhaha exactly. Kudos to Ira Glass for the retraction but raspberries for airing a story that relied on a theatre piece as the primary source in the first place. 

  • Ellen Burns

    This was a good read. You articulated what, I assume, most listeners of the program have been thinking, if not speaking. I agree with Mr. Diakonis about the approach that listeners should take to the redaction and to Mr. Glass in the future – lesson learned. 

    I don’t understand why you had to throw that dig at the political Left in at the end. First you imply that Glass was feeding ratings by playing off of Presidential race drama; you then seem to use the exact same tactic. Why not separate politics from journalism for one minute and keep the piece focused on the importance of fact-checking in modern reporting? In our rapid-fire news culture, surely such a message was worthy of this article’s final sentences.

  • Alexander Diakonis

    “Trust, but verify”
    This is a basic tenant of journalism that is drilled into us in J-school since day one.

    I understand the draw to point out Mr. Glass’ mistake by not fact checking or having his staff fact check. And while I am one who is generally first to call someone to the carpet for an error in judgment, I think that we need to take into consideration the fact that Mr. Glass is human and makes mistakes, just like the rest of us. Should he have done things differently? Sure. Can he change that fact, no? Should he be shamed for believing something like that from a person who has been writing monologues for years? I think no. I think we need to allow Mr. Glass to say, ” Lesson learned.” and move on with the quality journalism we are accustomed to.

  • Carey Rowland

    You are correct, Roy. The truth must always trump art whenever the question of fact is raised. Thanks to Marketplace for acting as ombudsman in this situation.

  • Christopher Onken

    Apparently the author was too busy thinking up his smug commentary to actually listen to the “This American Life” retraction program — Glass describes the extensive fact-checking that they attempted, only to be foiled by the deceptions of Daisey. Would the author have guessed that Googling “Cathy and translator and Shenzhen” would give the right person as the top hit? I wouldn’t have. In addition, the entire second act of the original program discussed their attempts to fact-check the story. The decision of both Apple and Foxconn not to provide any comment on the story only added a further sense of credibility. Full marks to Schmitz for following up on the things that didn’t ring true to him, but he did have the benefit of being in China and having a familiarity with the culture.

  • Christopher Onken

    Apparently the author was too busy thinking up his smug commentary to actually listen to the “This American Life” retraction program — Glass describes the extensive fact-checking that they attempted, only to be foiled by the deceptions of Daisey. Would the author have guessed that Googling “Cathy and translator and Shenzhen” would give the right person as the top hit? I wouldn’t have. In addition, the entire second act of the original program discussed their attempts to fact-check the story. The decision of both Apple and Foxconn not to provide any comment on the story only added a further sense of credibility. Full marks to Schmitz for following up on the things that didn’t ring true to him, but he did have the benefit of being in China and having a familiarity with the culture.